While Bassam Tariq has only made one feature (the 2013 documentary These Birds Walk, depicting a runaway Pakistani boy), his body of work never repeats the same style. His short “Waad” consists of one shot lasting more than four minutes, with complex blocking of actors and a script adapted from refugees’ letters. Produced by The New Yorker, “Amazon Mechanical Turk” turns to animation to convey the drudgery of working as an image cop for Amazon. His 22-minute documentary short, “Ghosts of Sugar Land,” began streaming on Netflix on Oct. 16, following a screening at Sundance earlier this year. “Ghosts of Sugar Land” begins with a potentially explosive subject: a young African-American Muslim referred to pseudonymously as Mark living in a Houston suburb goes to Syria to fight for ISIS, leaving behind confused friends who learn that he may have been working for the FBI. Instead of promoting stereotypes about Islam and terrorism, it uses Mark’s story as a springboard to explore the pressure on immigrants to assimilate into a hostile culture. Tariq had a personal connection to this subject, having lived in Houston, and his film is based around interviews with his friends, who wear masks on camera. “Ghosts of Sugar Land’s” style puts its subjects in situations that seem, paradoxically, both casual and posed — one interview takes place in the middle of a convenience store — and reflects Tariq’s engagement with the community he depicts. His shorts and music videos stream on his Vimeo page.
StudioDaily: How did Field of Vision and Netflix get involved with “Ghosts of Sugar Land?”
Bassam Tariq: Field of Vision was instrumental. At the time, Farihah Zaman, who was my producer on the project, was working at Field of Vision, and I had shared a small write-up with her about my ideas. I wanted to see if it would be an interesting thing for Field of Vision. She herself is South Asian and Muslim. She saw the importance of the story and helped me get development funds. Laura Poitras, who at the time ran Field of Vision, wanted to get behind it. After they saw it, right before we world-premiered at Sundance, Netflix got on board.
You’ve worked with a wide variety of producers and sponsors on your shorts, like The New Yorker and Vice. Your short “Waad” was produced with the Red Cross. Have you found that you’ve had to do so to avoid financing your films yourself?
I’m a young guy, I’ve got two kids and I have to find ways to finance my work. I try to find things that align with my values. When I find the right fit, it works out quite well. After my first film, there were some projects that fell apart in 2015. After that, I had to rebuild my own confidence. In 2017 and 2018, I put my toe back into the water and stopped asking for permission. My confidence is now coming back, and I can take leaps of faith.
To me, it feels like your choice of comic book and video game characters for your subjects in “Ghosts of Sugar Land” comments on the pressure to assimilate into American life. Was it deliberately pointed that way?
That’s a really great way to look at it. Cinema is really powerful when people draw their own conclusions. How you feel about it as an internal reaction is more interesting.
I’m not gonna ask about your intentions, but I will ask if your subjects chose those masks or if they were your idea.
They were what was available at Party City at the time! Because these masks can be quite expensive. But I gave them the choice of what masks they wanted to wear because it was important to feel comfortable. Having another layer between them and the camera helped them relax. That was interesting.
Do you think it would’ve been possible to make a film that deals with infiltration of Muslim-American communities and paranoia without knowing your subjects?
As a more general point, one of my favorite films is Chris Morris’ Four Lions. He’s an English dude. It’s an incredible and sensitive film about Muslims in the north of England. I don’t believe that only the person from your tribe can tell that story, but there is something very comfortable about ourselves telling that story. With this particular story, they would’ve closed up. It was literally just me, although at one point my friend Jake Singer came in to help me for a few days. But it was a closed set, because trust was so key. The community understandably has trust issues. Even talking to you right now, I have no clue how you’re going to position this film. Do you see it as a film about terrorism? These complexities get lost.
Was there ever a tension between the casual settings where you filmed and the masks?
In environments, I hope the viewer feels some tension. There’s a relationship between the subject and the place where they were filmed. Where we place them is important to what they’re saying. We position them in terms of how close they were to his subject. Kylo Ren is his best friend, so I filmed him in a closed space. Iron Man, who was a friend on the periphery, is in a bit more open space. Spider-man is in a theater room. These are the places where we hung out with Mark.
When you’ve shown the film, has it played differently to Muslim and non-Muslim spectators? Have you gotten any particularly ignorant responses?
As far as ignorance, anyone with the courage to ask a question comes from the desire to understand. I’m not gonna shut them down if they want to connect. An example I could give is that on Facebook, a Muslim chaplain said the film is trash. He said “Out of all the films you could make, why’d you make a film about this? There’s so much happening in our community. Why’d you choose to tell this story?” I understand that attitude, like “why’d you humanize this guy who did bad things?” Yeah, but I feel that there’s a larger disconnect Mark was going through and it’s important to try and understand that as well.
Your short “Waad” is one long, very complex take. How long did you have to shoot it?
A day and a half. The first day, we never got it right. We only got it right once, on the last take. I’m afraid to look at it now. You learn something from these films, but it comes with a lot of heartbreak.
Given how complicated it is, were you able to do any rehearsal?
There was a lot of rehearsal. The crew in Lebanon was great, as were the actors. Every element had to work for the one take to work. My Arabic is terrible, but I had a translator with me that was walking around. I learned a lot about directing fiction.
I watched it twice, and the second time I realized that there’s no onscreen violence. How much was created through off-screen sound?
We wanted to create a subjective space. You think it’s a son’s story, but actually it’s about a father reading a letter. There’s this complexity and a hand-off. I think I wanted to try and find how best to communicate this thing the father had gone through, and then the son giving his father some agency and hope.
Your music video for Red Mountain Choir’s “Slow Machete” is unusual in that the volume rises and falls and it incorporates street noises and people singing. Were you trying to emphasize the Haitian community as much as the song itself?
Yes, I think that I tried to mix it. We wanted to visually engage the audience do something that honored the character and power of the place and people, without being a one-note thing.
You also assembled footage shot in Pakistan into a music video for Riz MC’s [Riz Ahmed’s rap name] “Mogambo.” Since that wasn’t shot with the intention of becoming a music video, are you happy with the way it turned out?
It’s really in honor of our friendship. Riz has become one of my closest friends. It’s one of those moments where I love the track and enjoyed our trip to Pakistan. I see it as an encapsulation of that time and our friendship.
Like the video for “Slow Machete,” “Ghosts of Sugar Land” also has a sense of community. How much time did you spend shooting images of fireworks or people hanging out by the cars?
We spent days filming those things. I really care so much about environments. They make us who we are. Martin Scorsese is great at showing how we work in environments. Tarkovsky is my favorite filmmaker, and he made them tactile, depicting spaces in background and foreground and giving them life. I’m trying to honor the places I film.
Do you have a new project in the works?
I’m not allowed to say too much about it. It’s still being edited. It’s a fiction film written by me and Riz. He stars in it. I’m excited to see how people receive it when it’s finished.
You opened a halal butcher shop in New York. I don’t know any other filmmakers who are also butchers. Do you have much hands-on involvement with it?
I am quite involved. It’s tough these days because I am taking a step back. After my first film, I started it because I didn’t really think that I could continue in the film world. I had this urgency to keep making things. It’s a full-time endeavor, but it’s a community-building experience that I’m proud to be part of it.
“Ghosts of Sugar Land” is now streaming on Netflix.
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